Cole Hamels. Jesse Chavez. That guy from Washington. The Cubs flamed out at the end and failed to record a postseason win, but there’s no chance they’d have even made it to the division tiebreaker or Wild Card without big performances from late-season trades. And they’re not alone.
While free agency takes center stage for now and through much of the winter, adding talent through new contracts isn’t even close to the the most productive means of player acquisition. According to MLB.com’s Mike Petriello, trades resulted in the most total wins above replacement (377) and represented nearly 38 percent of MLB’s total WAR in 2018.
Interestingly enough, free agency (155 WAR) represented only 41 percent of the production generated from trades and lagged way behind the draft (290 WAR) as well. And while signing a big-ticket star only costs money (unless said player turned down a qualifying offer), many teams with prospects galore and/or specific holes to fill no doubt recognize the greater value in swinging trades.
And in some cases, like the three mentioned above, a team doesn’t even have to part with much in return for players who can have a significant impact. That’s a little different in the winter, when more of the focus is on long-term control than a turbo-boost down the stretch, so the names get bigger and circumstances can get a little more complicated. There’s also the matter of free agency pushing some players out of favor with their old teams. As such, there could be some landscape-altering deals swung over the next few months.
Petriello lists 15 potential trade candidates to watch, though it’d be uncouth of me to name them all here. Rather, I’ll share some that might be of keen interest to Cubs fans. Most notable is Kyle Schwarber, who long ago became an anthropomorphic trade rumor and is now cursed to live out his life as such. Unless, you know, Theo Epstein eventually does part with his large adult son.
Yes, Schwarber will forever be a legend in Chicago because of what he did in the 2016 World Series, but there was an argument to trade him that offseason, and there remains one today, especially since the firing of hitting coach Chili Davis seems unlikely to be the only change made to what ended up being an unsatisfying offense.
While Schwarber did improve his defense somewhat, he’s turned out to be more of a good player than a great one, with large career platoon splits (.349 OBP/.509 SLG vs righties, just .300 OBP/.308 SLG vs lefties) and probably better suited to some time at DH in the AL — especially if the Cubs can get pitching in return. He still has three more years left before free agency.
Petriello lists the Astros, Rays, Twins, and Mariners as possible fits since all are AL ballclubs and could presumably offer pitching in return. The rub here is that Schwarber alone may not be enough to bring back what the Cubs really need, unless they have a good feeling about a particular undervalued or underutilized bullpen arm. You’re not getting a top-flight starter for a platoon-heavy corner OF/DH and lights-out late-inning pitchers aren’t going to be offered for him like they were in 2016.
Speaking of, there are no relievers on Petriello’s list, though that could simply be a matter of them not generating enough WAR value to merit inclusion for the sake of his column. There are, however, some players whose departure from the NL Central would help the Cubs a little. Scooter Gennett is a guy who could aid the Reds’ rebuilding process, while the Cardinals may need to get Jose Martinez to a team that doesn’t have to play him in the field.
Whit Merrifield of the Royals is a name on the lips of several Cubs fans who covet his elite speed (79 steals over last two seasons), solid on-base skills (.347 OBP), and ability to play both second base and outfield. He’s basically the anti-Daniel Murphy. Oh, he’s also under contractual control for four more seasons, so it’s going to take a little something to pry him free.
There are some other intriguing names in Petriello’s piece and many, many more who aren’t listed but will surely be wearing different uniforms next season. A few Cubs will likely be among them as the front office looks to act on the “production over potential” mantra that’s been voiced since the season ended. And since trades are apparently the best way to add production, the Cubs figure to be extra busy this winter.